Knowledge, Community, Irony, and Love, p. 2

My friends and I concluded that there were no sure signs that the filmmakers knew their film was ridiculous. It was either really subtle parody, or embarrassingly bad crap. One person I talked to over drinks, who was in fact a cinematographer on another of the entries, insisted that this was just a bad film, that the participants got together and figured, hey, let's do a musical. We've got some people who can sing, and others who can dance, so let's use their talents and do it. And what came out was tedious, overlong drivel, interspersed with absurd cliche. Oops.

Another guy was sure they had to be making a joke. Certainly, by the end of the film, most of the audience was laughing out loud. Surely this was a send-up of amateurish indie-film, what with its preposterous acting, melodrama, and ridiculous dance gestures. It was just the sort of drivel I made in high school, when I thought I was the next Truffaut (even though I didn't know who Truffaut was).

My own 'hybrid' view was that the script was sincere, but the director, seeing the wheel of cheese s/he was presented with, did a piss-take on the whole thing. The melodramatic shots of the best-friend wilting on the side of an L.A. alley as the man's car drives off; the absurd overacting; the straight-outta-MTV expressionistic dancing around an alley fence - these particularly egregious howlers were all in the direction.

Now, you might say, it doesn't much matter. But I think our audience response varies utterly depending on what we think the filmmakers know about film. We are either laughing with them, or laughing at them. These are two radically different art experiences. If the filmmakers "get it," recognize that the imagery and words they are using is pat and ridiculous, then we join with them in the joke. If they don't "get it," if they think there's nothing silly about MTV editing or Video-Toaster effects, then they've made this turkey, and we're laughing at them.

In other words, we either join with them in a community, or laugh at them from across the boundary. We either connect with the artist - as, say, we connect with the over-the-top music in Urinetown, even as we join in the cast's joy of singing music they know to be over-the-top but damn isn't it fun - or we isolate ourselves from them, make ourselves superior to them, think ourselves to be cooler.

Consider the reaction of people who 'get' experimental art compared with those who think it is ridiculous. I wandered around the Whitney Biennial laughing hilariously with John Leanos's parody of anthropological museum exhibits, while other people seemed to think there really were Aztec castration rituals and were puzzled by the clearly random rocks and wood inside the display case. I connected intuitively with Forcefield's Burningman-esque "alien" installation, participating in it, walking through it, while others laughed at it, or tentatively peeked in, wondering what the artistic charlatans were selling us on now, or just looked befuddled. (I found a lot of the traditional' painting at the Biennial left me cold in much the same way.) Connection, or alienation. These responses may be determined by our knowledge (and how much effort we are willing to invest in acquiring it) but they are emotional and communal in nature.

These same issues arose for me recently when I wrote a very short piece for Spin magazine about mead, a drink made of fermented honey that is catching on in a few underground bars. I wrote the piece tongue-in-cheek, gently mocking the trend but also connecting with the mead-drinkers and respecting their amusing habits. But Spin, ever the home of irony, turned it into pure ridicule. This is a recurrent feature in Spin, which as a publication seems so afraid to embrace the cultures it reports on that everything is distanced with layers of irony and cynicism. They always know more than their subjects do. They are always cooler.

I'm not sure where the right line is on the continuum between an unreflexive embrace of all art, including shlock and kitsch, and a hyper-reflexive, super-ironic disavowal of everything. I know that while I am all too happy to share a psychic space with someone who loves some country music (Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett), I know that I can only enjoy some (Billy Ray Cyrus) through the prism of irony.

Postmodernism was once defined as saying to one's lover: "As Shakespeare said, thou art lovely and more temperate.'" Pre-modern consciousness - kitsch - repeats the line without the inverted commas, just absorbs and repeats, without any understanding that you are not Shakespeare, that now is not then, history has meaning. Modern consciousness doesn't quote Shakespeare at all. Postmodern thought wants to acknowledge that history has separated us from Shakespeare and also somehow say "you are lovely" to the beloved.

Such artistic gestures are constitutive aspects of community. Someone who sees the world in terms of boy band songs does not simply have different musical taste from my own; they are experiencing the world in a different way. They ignore the methods of artistic production, they devalue individualism and difference, they consume what is provided by the apparatus of mass media. I have very little to say to such a person. And yet, on the other pole, someone who can only view art ironically, who can't admit to really liking something, which means not mocking it but identifying it - is such a person ever other than alone?

I don't want to be regarding my friends from a critical distance, like an audience member observing the idiocy of Vicious Cycle. I want to laugh with the filmmakers, not at them, and to share with them a vocabulary of understanding and of emotional connection. And I want my friends to "get me" just as they might "get" a work of art or a cliche or a joke. Maybe, cool' notwithstanding, love and knowledge aren't so distant after all.

[1]       2
Image: From Mark Napier's Riot, part of the Whitney Biennial.

More Art:


At college drawing classes, looking for the real art among the posing.
May, 2002

Mystical Nazi Sex Gods Jay Michaelson
What draws protesters to shout about banal holocaust art?
April, 2002

June 2002

jay's head